02 December 2021

SUBJECTS: National accounts; Last day of Parliament for the year.
KELLY FULLER, HOST: Stephen Jones is the MP for Whitlam and the Shadow Minister for Finance and joining us on this last sort of, I think manic day of parliament for the year. Morning, Stephen Jones.
FULLER: Thank you for talking to us. So it seems, just to those results, much better than economists predicted. The government's pointing to a rebound. What do you attribute the result to?
JONES: Look, the economy shrank by two percent in the September quarter. By no measure is that a good result. Direct result of the government's failures on vaccine roll out and quarantine management. It was a lockdown that we didn't have to have. I'm pleased that it looks like the last one we’re going to have. But there's obviously still a fair bit of uncertainty and caution within business and within households, which is the underlying reason why we've got record levels of household savings. People have paid down debt except their mortgages and they're just sitting on a buffer.
FULLER: I'll get to the savings in a minute. Isn't it reasonable that an economy would slump during, you know, the impact of such a massive downturn because of the pandemic? Isn't it reasonable that we saw that happen around the around the world?
JONES: I won’t say it’s reasonable. It's obvious and natural if people can't go to work, if people are locked up in their houses and can't do the normal things that we would do that, you're going to see a decline in economic activity. We saw two percent decline. We ranked 28th out of 28 in the OECD. By no measure is this a fantastic result. And then if you ask yourself, why did that happen? It happened because of the government's failures on vaccine and it happened because the government failures on quarantine. We can't just lightly skate over that because it begs questions about how they're going to manage the recovery. And it's still not clear about what the government's plan is. We’ll be laying at our plans over the course of the next few months about what our plans are for the recovery. But the government's plans for the recovery far from clear and there are significant challenges.
FULLER: The opposition was critical of the government for not spending enough, particularly when it ended job keeper after 12 months. and we sort of I've had the New South Wales government stepping in until we sort of had a particular percentage rate of vaccination across the state …
JONES: Can I pick you up on that? We weren't critical of the government not spending enough. We were critical of how the government spent its money. When you're wasted nearly $30bn of Job Keeper on businesses that were making bumper profits while you had casual workers getting no support, casual workers out of work and getting no support. We think that's a misallocation taxpayer’s money. So, it wasn't the amount of money that was being spent. It was the priorities and the way it was being spent.
FULLER: But do the results show that the spending was enough and further support, though, would have pushed the nation deeper into debt?
JONES: I guess I’ve got to repeat the point. It's not the quantum. It's not the fact that they spent $100bn on market and business support. It's the fact that they gave a lot of money to businesses that didn’t need it.
FULLER: But you did argue for Job Keeper to continue?
JONES: Yes, and the redirection of money that was misallocated to people who really needed it and were doing it tough. And I still speak to such a small businesses who haven't got the support that they were promised, the pandemic support that they were promised, and they have given up on it. So I just wanted to create a record on that.
FULLER: Really?
JONES:, Yeah, absolutely. Still talking to small businesses who were promised support for that still hasn't flowed through. So that’s an ongoing thing with this government. Big promises are made, whether it’s bushfire support or pandemic support and the money has not flowed.
FULLER: If we could maybe get put in touch with some of those businesses we’d be interested in following that up.
JONES: I’m sure they’re likely to contact you after this interview.
FULLER: The household saving figures though are fascinating, Stephen Jones. Australians have amassed a lot of savings of $250bn. I'd like to know who those people are! Is it a sign that it is a sign the support packages were enough to keep people working and saving or it was a sign of apprehension?
JONES: A bunch of things. I think it puts a spotlight on how much money Australian spend traveling overseas, around about $60BN a year is spent by Australians living in Australia getting on a plane and traveling to another country for the holidays or for work. So there’s a bit of that. People not going out to restaurants, to cafes to nightclubs in the like, fair bit of that in that money as well. So it's all those services that weren't getting the business that they would normally get.  Australians also spend a significant amount of their weekly income on services, they just weren't happening. Everything from a person coming over to clean your house to all of that entertainment and the like. And, you know, there's also a limit to how many new pairs of sneakers you can buy over the course of the year. My son might disagree with that!
FULLER: A lot of people might disagree with that!
JONES: But yeah, so I think a lot of spending occurred in the previous six months. So there's been a build-up of household savings and it also talks to a bit of caution. Not unreasonable. People know that interest rates are going to rise. They’re at record lows. They're going to rise. They know the cost of living stuff going up. So that a part of that savings is a buffer and a part of it is money that they could not have spent.
FULLER: To that point that Josh Frydenberg made in that comment to Leigh Sales on 7:30 last night, and yesterday we heard the Business Illawarra talk about worker shortages and even the impact of this additional two-week delay in the visas. But the Treasurer saying the RBA is expecting unemployment with a four in front of it soon. What would Labor do to continue to put downward pressure on the on the market to keep those numbers lower?
JONES: There are really interesting things happening in the labour market and you’ve got look under the bonnet for see what's going on. You’ve got wages that are flat, when you've got unemployment that on its face of it looks low. Demand for labour’s up, particularly in services. You’ve still got high levels of unemployment and participation rates are down. So people have withdrawn from the labour market and not and not returned to it. And that's artificially suppressing the unemployment level. It means less people are looking for work because people have just withdrawn from the labour market. But I think all of this speaks to a mismatch between the skills that employers are demanding and the skills that are available. So if I give you a couple of examples at either end of the labour market. If you're a barista, if you're a chef, if you're a restaurant worker, you can walk into a job this afternoon and be working tonight. If you're a cyber security expert, you can write your own paycheck. There's a whole heap of occupations, auditors and accountants, that are in really short supply at all ends of the labour market. And the problem is we haven't been training them. We’ve missed an opportunity over the last two years to be training people up. It shows that we've been over reliant on immigration to fill these workforce shortages. Immigration not available to us at the moment. So we've got massive capacity shortages.
FULLER: What would Labor do to improve the skills and or retraining of the workforce?
JONES: Some immediate short-term things need to be done which is a significant boost in the vocational, in TAFE, in vocational, education and training. Immigration is going to have to be a part of the short-term. But the medium and long-term stuff has got to be around redirecting resources into training our own people. More apprentices. We've already some policy around significant investment in apprentices. More investment interests and doing a better job around TAFE and vocational education which has been gutted over the last decade. So this is going to be a focus. Skills is going to be the thing which determines whether we come out of this pandemic growing and sustainably growing or we're going to choke. I'm not worried about what happens over Christmas. I think we can have a booming Christmas. Don't worry about what happens over the first quarter of next year. I think that's going to go well. But I am worried about the end of next year and what happens beyond that as these labour market shortages and supply shortages start to bite.
FULLER: Stephen Jones MP for Whitlam and Shadow Finance Minister, just on 8:45 ABC, Illawarra. Just briefly, on to other issues. I know you’re heading back into the Parliament. Labor is yet to commit to adopting all 28 recommendations of the Jenkins Report to Parliament House Workplace Culture. Are you urging Anthony Albanese to move quickly on this?
JONES: Yeah, we will. The report and a large part, not all of it, but you have to say about 70 percent of the recommendations go to the way, the people who work for politicians and parliamentarians are treated. So we want to have a meeting with our staff but not all of them can be in Canberra at the moment because of covid restrictions. So we want to have a meeting with our staff and discuss all of these with us. But yeah, you're not all in on having a report and then ignoring its response. I the respectful and right thing to do to talk to our staff and say and be directed by them. It was really hard reading. Like, I've got to say, just extraordinarily hard reading.
FULLER: It was pretty disgraceful some of the evidence.
JONES: Not all of it was a surprise. In a former life I was a union representative who represented the people who work throughout Parliament House. So I've seen some of this in a previous life. But just the scale of it was pretty awful, I've got to say. Some of the individual stories, hard reading. A volume of shame. And we've got to use this as an opportunity to turn the corner and say, Parliament should be a beacon of good behaviour, not a place of shame and we have got to ensure that we see if we're making laws which direct the way businesses and workplaces around the country are supposed to behave, then we're going to have the best of it on display, not the worst of it.
FULLER: Do you welcome revelations this morning the government's abandoned its proposed voter ID laws? They've been dumped and there was great concern about that.
JONES: The most misnamed bill that has been introduced into this Parliament this year. These were not voter ID laws. These were voter suppression laws. And they're all about two seats in the Federal Parliament which will be hotly contested. One of them is Lingiari, which has got a high rate of indigenous voters and it was all about suppressing the indigenous vote in that seat and a number of other places around the country. They were blatantly racist laws. The person who were the brainchild behind them spent six months in the US and thought, we'll do some of that over here in Australia. I'm glad they dropped it. It's good for democracy.
FULLER: And look at a deal seems to have been done with some Liberal moderates on the Religious Discrimination Bill, amendments that will be made to the Sex Discrimination Act which will allow religious schools to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender, or relationship status. Could we see a vote on that bill today? Will Labor support the amendments?
JONES: Not on my watch. The government's got to set out. This is a bill which is a solution in search of a problem. We received the final text of the bill on Sunday  and we've been asked to vote on it on Thursday. That's extraordinary. At the beginning of the week we've been guaranteed would go through a proper Parliamentary committee process where members of the public can submit to it and we can interrogate the impacts of the bill. You’ll forgive me for being a little bit cynical, if we’re taking the word of the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General on what the bill does or doesn't do. In my experience in the area of discrimination law, when you start to codify things like this there is a very strong chance that the very group you are trying to protect actually goes backwards. So we haven't seen the amendments. We haven't seen them. So it's on the notice paper for the first thing this morning. We haven't seen any amendments and we've had the bill for less than a week. So forgive me if we are saying we're not going to rush into voting for this. We want to keep the government to its word and say this is such an important thing, let’s have a deliberative process that enables members of the public to make their submissions. And if the bill need further amendments then that should happen. Not that I'm against laws, but I think in no other time in the nation's history when we've dealt with a piece of discrimination legislation have we rushed it through Parliament in four days. At no other time, whether it's race discrimination, sex discrimination workplace discrimination, age discrimination. At no other time in our nation's history have we rushed through in four days with only seeing the text of the bill four days before we’re asked to vote on it and we're not going to do it this time either.